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No elegant technical fixes for distracted driving

Dialing or texting on a phone is a proven distraction when you're behind the wheel. But as 'smart' as today's phones are, they can't compensate for human folly.

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A student at Redbay High School tries to keep an eye on the road while he texts while driving a simulator car to see what happens to distracted drivers, at the Bevill Center at Northwest Shoals Community College in Muscle Shoals, Ala.

Matt McKean/The Times Daily/AP

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When does a smartphone make you dumb?

When you're driving.

Dialing or texting on a phone is a proven distraction when you're behind the wheel. And as "smart" as today's phones are, they can't compensate for human folly. Phone makers and software developers are making a valiant effort to create elegant technical solutions, but, try as they might, they've yet to solve the problem of distracted driving.

A new survey, released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, exposes just how severe the problem is —especially among young drivers. In the survey, about 58 percent of high school seniors said they had texted or emailed while driving during the previous month. About 43 percent of high school juniors acknowledged they did the same thing.

Thirty-nine states ban texting behind the wheel for all age groups, and an additional five states outlaw it for novice teen drivers. Even so, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said distracted driving is "a national epidemic".

The industry doesn't have a surefire cure. There's a bevy of phone applications (or apps) that silence a phone when they detect that the device is moving at car speed. Although they carry names like "SecuraFone" these solutions all have limitations that prevent them from being widely adopted.

One big shortcoming is that they can't tell drivers from passengers. Most of the apps assume any phone that's travelling at more than 10 miles per hour belongs to a driver. Of course, that phone might belong to someone in the back seat, or on a bus or train. That means these apps come with easy override buttons —which could also be used by a driver. The app isn't "smart" enough to know the difference.

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